The Islamist takeover of two-thirds of Mali this year has spurred the West as well as concerned neighboring countries in Africa to find a way to restore Mali to its democratic path and drive out jihadist elements. Islamist groups in Mali currently include Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is considered one of the most dangerous of al Qaeda’s affiliated groups.
AQIM establishes itself in northern Mali
In March of this year, the Malian government was overthrown by a military coup. The resulting disorder and weakening of the central government galvanized Tuareg secessionists and allied Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine and MUJAO, to shake off government control and declare an independent Islamic state. The Tuaregs were subsequently largely pushed out of the Islamist coalition, which now controls a large area in northern Mali (Azawad) that includes the cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao.
Over the last several months, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and allied Islamist groups have taken advantage of the governmental vacuum to build a new territorial base in northern Mali, similar to other al Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Other jihadist groups are also present in Mali, including Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJOA). In addition, foreign jihadists from West African countries such as Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, as well as Egyptians, Algerians, and Pakistanis, have been swelling the ranks of the three groups. At least two training camps have been established in Gao.
AQIM’s expansion into Mali alarms West
The swift Islamist takeover of such a large area has forced the US and other Western nations to recognize that recent developments in Mali reflect a dangerous new threat posed by AQIM and associated Islamist groups. While discussions within the US had been taking place before the Sept. 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, that event added urgency after the attack was linked to AQIM. “The Benghazi event, with the murder of Chris Stevens, has really precipitated American intervention. It’s turned the tables in the region,” said Ghislaine Lydon, a history professor at UCLA.
Once considered one of the weaker al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is now considered much more dangerous, having demonstrated the ability to exploit the regional chaos in order to gain a foothold. With “increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions,” said US Secretary State Hillary Clinton. She said the United States was “stepping up our counterterrorism efforts” to combat “a threat to the entire region and to the world.”
France also considers AQIM a threat. “This is actually a major threat to French interests in the region, and to France itself,” said Francois Heisbourg, an expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research. In 2010, France said it was at war with AQIM after the group executed a kidnapped French aid worker. Currently, six French citizens are being held hostage in Mali, and France seeks to prevent further kidnappings. In addition, French authorities are increasingly concerned about the prospect of homegrown Islamist terrorists going abroad for training in places like the Sahel and then returning to France.
US, France drive a plan to confront the Islamists
The US and France are partnering to create the plan. High-level American and French military and diplomatic leaders met for two days of talks in Paris in October to work out a common strategy.
The US and French military strategy focuses primarily on ways to help regional militaries confront AQIM. According to US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “[o]ur goal in Mali, because of our concern about AQIM, is that we need to work with the nations in the region. They all agree that we’re facing the same threat there from AQIM.” US Army General Carter F. Ham, chief of the US Africa Command, said that there were no plans for US direct military intervention in Mali, but that the US would support counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations by other countries. France has also determined that it will not to provide ground troops but will provide logistics, training, and intelligence support.
US General Carter F. Ham discusses the plan to confront Islamists in Mali
The plan contains the following elements:
Assist neighboring countries to defend themselves. The US has provided money to Mauritania and Niger for military equipment. The US has held military exercises with Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Gambia. French troops have also participated.
Gather intelligence. The US military has launched a series of clandestine intelligence missions to conduct surveillance flights and monitor communications over the Sahara Desert and the region to the south. The US is operating surveillance flights from Special Forces bases in Burkina Faso. France plans to transfer surveillance drones to west Africa by the end of the year.
Establish a base in Algeria. The US and France are lobbying for support from Algeria, which would be an important ally in any confrontation with the Islamists in Mali. Algeria is the strongest state in the area, and it fought and won a brutal war with radical Islamic groups in the 1990s. The US has requested military basing rights in the southern part of the country that is adjacent to northern Mali. In addition, southern Algeria is well-located to provide logistical support for units operating in northern Mali. “There is a strong recognition that Algeria has to be a central part of the solution,” said a US diplomat.
Create a UN military force to intervene directly in Mali. The primary effort will be to assemble a UN peacekeeping force to intervene militarily in Mali. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) will develop a force consisting of 6,000 African troops, funded and supported by the Western nations. Half of the soldiers will come from Mali’s national army, and the remaining half will be drawn from other African countries in the region. The US, France, and Britain will supply the training, logistics, and intelligence support. The headquarters will be set up in Koulikoro, about 30 miles northeast of Mali’s capital of Bamako. ECOWAS has agreed to provide 3,300 troops, mostly from Nigeria, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
The US and allied countries are currently working out the details of a plan with Mali’s interim government. Mali said it welcomes the support. The final plan will be reviewed by the UN Security Council in mid-November, at which point it could be put into action. The first step will be to establish the base of operations in Koulikoro. Then ECOWAS soldiers will be trained, equipped, and integrated with Malian forces. This will take about six months, at which point the ECOWAS force will be ready to begin operations.
It should be noted that the planned ECOWAS force is similar to one created in Somalia to confront al Qaeda’s affiliate, Shabaab. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) force of 16,000 Ugandan, Kenyan, and Burundian troops, supported and trained by the US, was formed in 2007. By 2012, it had successfully driven Shabaab out of most of the populated areas of Somalia.
According to the plan, the ECOWAS force will begin operations in Mali sometime next year. Its first task will be to secure Mali’s capital, Bamako, and southern Mali. It will then move to northern Mali to confront AQIM directly. ECOWAS will attempt to drive AQIM and affiliated jihadist groups out of strongholds in Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal and into the mountain ranges of Mali and Niger where their influence can be contained.
AQIM and associated groups are taking the threat of intervention seriously. “Hundreds of jihadists, mostly Africans from Western Sahara have arrived as reinforcements to face an offensive by Malian forces and their allies,” AFP reported, quoting a Malian security source. “They are armed and explained that they had come to help their Muslim brothers against the infidels,” a Timbuktu resident said. AQIM has threatened to attack Mali’s capital of Bamako if the ECOWAS force is set up.
On the other hand, Ansar Dine recently stated that it is ready to open talks with the Malian government to prevent a conflict. Ansar Dine has also sent delegates to Algeria and Burkina Faso in order to head off intervention. “Ansar Dine reaffirms its availability to immediately engage in a political dialogue with the transition authorities in Mali, in order to reach a complete end to hostilities,” the group said. MUJAO also has appeared to back away from the conflict. Its rank and file have begun to defect and its commander in Gao surrendered to authorities in Niger.
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